Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2000
William E. Wallace Michelangelo: The Complete Painting, Sculpture, Architecture Hong Kong: Hugh Laueter Levin Associates, 1998. 267 pp.; 139 color ills.; 133 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (0883632071)

There are, I’m sure, many people in the world who feel that no more can be said about Michelangelo and that, really, no more ought to be said. At the same time, there seems to be no limit to the number of people who simply want to look at his work—crowds are undiminished at the Sistine Chapel, and large-scale, lavishly-produced picture books continue to be made. In recent years, these books have been rather selective: the many variants of glorious restorations, the early work, and the sculpture. Therefore, a need did exist for a monographic volume, and William Wallace’s book is an engaging and intelligent response to that need. This is a book intended for the public, not the academic audience. It will not substitute for other books that serve as more comprehensive introductions to Michelangelo’s development. Howard Hibbard’s volume still provides a reliable overview, especially when supplemented by James Ackerman’s book on the architecture and now Anthony Hughes’s monograph in the Phaidon series. But for those who want a collection of good images with minimal but well-informed commentary, this book will serve very well.

Wallace takes the classic “life and works” approach, with a brief biography preceding sections on sculpture, painting, and architecture. A sampling of drawings is also included, with the drawings for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and the Vittoria Colonna given their rightful place among the paintings. Grouping the works by medium has advantages and disadvantages, and in this case, it seems that the arrangement does allow the author to shape the presentation in a way that highlights his own interests and expertise. Although a more integrated approach would undoubtedly give greater emphasis to biography, patronage, and iconographic ties between works—grouping works by medium allows the author to focus on Michelangelo’s working procedure, and it encourages comparisons within genres. Readers will be aware of the chronological jumps between sections, but Wallace reduces the choppiness by placing sculpture first (as it dominated Michelangelo’s earliest work), followed by painting, and finally architecture.

The biography that precedes the media chapters is quite remarkable. The dramatic details we all know so well—the formative powers of the milk from a stonemason’s wife, the violent disapproval of Michelangelo’s father, the seating arrangement at Lorenzo de’ Medici’s table—are not emphasized. Instead, Wallace stresses connections: it is the father who not only takes his son to Ghirlandaio’s shop, but also uses remote kinship ties to place him with the Medici. There he does indeed receive an education, not so much in the practice of sculpture, but in the humanities and in the desire remarkable men could have toward a remarkable boy. Connections (not a chance meeting) bring him to the attention of Aldovrandi, and connections (not a fraudulent Cupid) lead him to Cardinal Riario in Rome. Michelangelo himself fostered those connections, seeking patrons at the highest level throughout his career. Like most writers on Michelangelo, Wallace reports on the conflicts that existed between the artist and some of his patrons, but he gives balance to the picture by pointing out times when mutual respect prevailed, as it did with Pope Clement VII. The conflicts that matter more in this book are those between the contrasting roles Michelangelo played: micromanager and aristocrat, workman and millionaire investor.

The rest of the book is devoted to photographs accompanied by short, descriptive essays. These are written with clarity and grace, and often contain original insights. They also reveal the unique interests of the author, whose earlier book on the San Lorenzo projects focused on working procedures. Often in the descriptions of sculpture, our attention is drawn to the weight of the stone, its irregular outline, the marks of the tools, and the evidence of the materials. I found the description of the Accademia Slaves particularly interesting. The author, musing on their unfinished quality, says that this seems intentional: the Awakening Slave, for example, could never have been finished since the position of the head and the legs would have thrown it so far off balance that it could never stand. Now the portrait that Wallace paints of Michelangelo is not perfect—there are bad days, miscalculations, and flawed blocks—however, in this case, the visual evidence compels us to think that this was no mistake, but instead, a deeply felt expression of matter and soul, of life and death.

The descriptions of the paintings seem less distinct, although the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes are set apart from the other painting—indeed from all the other works—by a different kind of presentation. Some of the details are reproduced on tissue, which does not serve any good purpose except perhaps to slow down the page turning (in fact, these pages tend to cling together). Quotations from Genesis appropriately begin the photo essay. But then other quotations are interspersed among the images, sometimes without even referring to the neighboring photograph. These quotations are identified only by the name of the speaker, and while no one would wonder about Michelangelo, perhaps a few readers would not know that Giorgio Vasari and Bernard Berenson wrote more than three centuries apart, and I wonder how many could identify Julius Meier-Graefe at all. The general impression is that the Sistine Chapel demands (and always has demanded) a response of respectful awe. Most people who have seen the frescoes in the Vatican or even in reproductions know they are supposed to feel that way, but many of them might appreciate learning why.

Within this section and throughout the descriptive essays there are references to the works of other scholars, opinions on various controversial questions, and responses to interpretations. (For instance, there is an amusing rebuttal to Leo Steinberg’s sexualized interpretation of Eve’s position in the Temptation on page 150.) But none of this is very overt. For example, the title of Wallace’s book promises completeness, but several pieces are missing, including the Santo Spirito Crucifix and the London Entombment. Are we to conclude that Wallace does not accept these attributions? At other points, attribution and dating problems are mentioned, but not explored, and the author’s own decision is presented as fact (as, for example, in his discussion of the Madonna of Stairs). Iconographic interpretations are avoided (Neoplatonism particularly seems anathema; it is barely mentioned, even when discussing Lorenzo de’ Medici’s circle). Comparison—that old standby of art historical analysis—is also largely avoided, although sometimes the arrangement of photographs suggests that the analysis be left to the reader. For example, seven sculptures showing the Madonna are brought together in large foldout pages, but without explanation or even a reminder in the captions of their widely differing dates. Clearly, this is not an academic book, so supporting arguments are curtailed, and footnotes and bibliography are omitted entirely. This last omission is troubling. It is true that the bibliography on Michelangelo is vast, much of it repetitive or of such minute concern that it would interest only the most specialized scholars. But even general readers might appreciate a very selective list or a bibliographic essay that would guide them through the morass.

Generally, the photography is very good. However, some details of the sculpture are grainy, and more care should have been given to matching colors in the frescoes. Details of the same areas of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, for example, have an overly orange cast in some photos, an overly green tone in others. Some of the choices of photographs are also questionable: Why are we shown four views of the façade of St. Peter’s, which better illustrate the work of Carlo Maderno? Why not show the exterior from the west, to illustrate Michelangelo’s own architecture? It would be especially instructive to put such a view next to the image of Sangallo’s model. On the other hand, even specialists will be interested in the views of the Sforza Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria degli Angeli, projects which are rarely given full attention in general works. A small plan of the Sforza Chapel would help readers visualize the entire chapel.

In the end, what kind of book is this? It reminds me most of a lecture by a very good professor, who is able to describe the works vividly and show us what is still so wonderful about these well-known objects, who suggests (but just suggests) some of the research that has been done on each piece, and who presents in subtle or not so subtle ways his own point of view. Academic readers will undoubtedly want more documentation and references, but even they sometimes need simply to look at these extraordinary works.

Bernadine Barnes
Professor, Department of Art, Wake Forest University

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